Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

New Voices

"It's a hard world to get a break in, all the good things have been taken."

("It's My Life," Eric Burdon and the Animals, 1965)

Occasionally I stumble across new voices out there in the industry blog-o-sphere, and recently encountered two of which – for very different reasons -- are worth a look. 

Given that young Benjamin Puleo has yet to graduate from school and has no film-making experience beyond the halls of academe, referring to his Delusions of Fresh Meat (a wonderfully lurid title, that) as an “industry blog” is a stretch.  Still, Ben seems determined to pursue a career in the film industry upon graduation in June, at which point the real struggle will begin – and as this recent post indicates, tilting at the fickle windmills of Hollywood while carrying a heavy load of personal hopes and parental expectations is not for the faint of heart.  He's a smart young man who writes with a stylish flair that comes from deep within -- the kind of thing that can’t be taught – and although his blog is just a baby (with a dozen or so posts up at this point), I think his writing will resonate with many young people out there who face the same daunting challenge.

I feel for the kid.  Reading Delusions of Fresh Meat reminds me of my own fears and insecurities when I was on the cusp of chasing an exotic dream neither my friends nor parents could really understand. It ain’t easy. 

As it happens, Ben will soon graduate from the same school I attended forty-odd years ago, but with a huge difference -- back then, the combined fees for tuition plus room and board came to less than $9500 over four years.  Adjusted for inflation, that works out to considerably less than half what Ben and his fellow students will have spent.  Having entered as a junior transfer, I was at the big school for only three years, so my expenses (which is to say, the bills my father paid) were commensurately less. Although Dad was a social worker who never made much money, he managed to put me through college without either of us applying for a loan.

It was a different world back then.  Absent the crushing burden of debt, I felt no real pressure to pursue a career immediately upon graduation -- which is just as well, since I was woefully unprepared for Real Life.  Instead, I had the luxury of spending the next three post-graduate years in the lovely little coastal town of Santa Cruz, where I edited my thesis film, chased girls, and survived on a low-octane blend of minimum wage jobs and unemployment insurance.  Needless to say, this did not impress my father, who saw me as a lazy underachiever working the counter at deli's and pizza parlors after squandering five years and lots of his money on a degree in "aesthetic studies." And truth be told, I was in no position to argue the point --  not until the day I finally headed for Hollywood.

No doubt he viewed that a fool’s errand as well, but I have to believe the subsequent thirty-five years proved him wrong. 

We all move at our own pace in life, and the fact is, I needed a chunk of time after college not just to finish my thesis film, but to learn something about the reality of work and the world beyond school.  I wasn’t ready to spread my wings and fly right out of college – but once that bell finally rang, I threw a leg over my motorcycle and rode into LA fully prepared to carpe the fucking diem in making the most of every opportunity that came my way.

That’s pretty much how it worked out. After a couple of anxious months, I landed that crucial first gig (unpaid, naturally) to get the ball rolling, and by the end of Year One in LA, had three low budget features on my budding resume, was about to start the forth, and had moved up from my entry-level status as a PA to work as a member of grip and electric crews.  I was making a living working on movies, no longer dependent on anybody else to pay my rent or put gas in my car – and that felt great. 

It was just a start, of course.  The serious heavy lifting and lots more drama lay ahead, but that first year kicked my Hollywood journey into gear.

I’m not sure it's possible to take such a leisurely post-graduate path towards an industry career these days, which is a shame.  College students from similarly humble backgrounds today must qualify for fat scholarships or take out huge student loans -- or both -- just to get through school, so the pressure is on from the moment the mortarboards and gowns come off.  

But fear not, kids, it can be done.  People are busy doing it every single day, and if you're willing to work hard enough, you can too.*

As Exhibit A in the power of determination and hard work, I offer you Amy Clarke.  A mere 22 years old, Amy already has nine features under her belt, and currently makes a living as a script supervisor in England, her home country.  She's managed to find the time to make a few short films along the way, and plans to direct her first indy feature later this year.

Her experiences are chronicled at Amy Clarke Films -- a no-nonsense title that belies a lively sense of humor.  I had to wonder about her claim to have been in the business for seven years, though:  how could that be possible unless the child labor laws of England still hew to the harsh standards of Dickensian times?  My assumption was that Amy must have some serious industry connections to get such an early start -- but glib assumptions have made a fool of me in the past, so I put the question to her.  Her reply came back fast and set me straight.

"I don't have any family connections with the British film industry.  I started my first free runner job when I was 15.  Whilst studying media at secondary school, I had a few free runner jobs between the ages 15-16.  I then went to college and studied film whilst working paid and unpaid jobs as a script supervisor and camera assistant (17-19) on features, adverts, and shorts.  From 19-21 I went into university and studied film production.  I worked on a few features and short films paid and unpaid whilst at university."

"When I first left university 10 months ago, I already had a full CV -- mainly script supervision credits. I got my first job 3 days after university ended.  I think the key thing is that my CV was full of the same credit -- I'm no jack of all trades -- which many university leavers think they are.  Since I specialize at one job, people see me as the person to go to for that role"

"People have called me 'lucky.'  I hate that, to think all the hard work and time devoted to the industry had nothing to do with it.  I don't believe in luck.  I work hard, long hours and most of all, I'm good at the job.  It's all about experience."

That last paragraph is a primal scream about the reality of making it in the film industry.  Every film student and Hollywood wannabe out there should print that passage and read it every morning. The secret of film industry success can be summed up in just four simple words: hard work and persistence.

I've heard plenty of how-I-got-started-in-the-movies stories over the years, but never one quite like this, which makes it abundantly clear just how much commitment, drive, and sheer moxie Amy Clark possesses.  Hers is the strong voice of an ambitious young woman with a passion for film, who has worked extremely hard to make her way in a very challenging industry.  Amy is wise beyond her years, no doubt, but more to the point, she's having a blast while climbing the industry ladder in Great Britain.  As some of her recent posts point out, it's not all fun and games -- the grueling discipline of making movies for a living precludes any semblance of normal life (social or otherwise) for the duration of principal photography -- but as every industry newbie discovers, there are unique rewards for those who make the necessary sacrifices.

Amy is anything but an "industry newbie" by now, yet she retains the joi de vivre of a young woman doing exactly what she wants and having the time of her life.  Amy Clarke Films offers a front-row seat on her unfolding journey, and it's a great read.

With my own Hollywood experience nearing an end -- and theirs just beginning -- I envy young people like Ben and Amy for the adventures that lie ahead, because despite the gritty, compelling minor-chord narrative of It's My Life, Eric Burdon only got it half right back in 1965.  Then, as now, this is indeed a hard world to get a break in, but getting started in the film industry has always been hard, and often demands that you make your own breaks.  For those willing to put in the hard work, good things await.  The road ahead won't be easy for either of these two young bloggers as they chase their respective industry dreams -- Ben to write feature films, Amy to write and direct them -- but I have a feeling each will find their place under the warm cinematic sun.

I wish them both all the best -- and with links to their blogs over there on my Industry Blogroll, I'll be watching.

* How?  I'm glad you asked -- and am happy to let Amy tell you...


Ed (sloweddi) said...


A very nice post as always and I am happy to see you are still posting. But here is where I say to you and my self, "how is the book coming?"

I now realize how hard it is to write consistently to a deadline, even if the deadline is to myself.

But, how is the book coming?

Michael Taylor said...

Ed --

Someone a lot smarter than I am once said "you can't push a string." That's what writing is like for me -- I can't push the process too hard without losing touch with the muse, and no good will come of that.

Between the demands of full-time work, a knock-out siege of illness, and a death in the family, things have been jammed recently, leaving me neither the time nor energy to work on the book. Posts are easy compared to the book -- and a good post never comes easy -- so the best I can do right now is an occasional post when the spirit moves.

I can tell you three things with certainty, though:

1) The book will come when it comes, and not one day sooner.

2) I appreciate your interest, but asking "how the book is coming" will not speed up the process.

3) I'm a slow writer. No matter what happens, this project won't be completed anytime soon, so don't hold your breath.

When there's something to report, you'll read about it here. Until then -- in the words of Kurt Vonnegut -- "concentrate on the good, and ignore the bad."